The loud bang of hands slamming a table signalled a charged atmosphere. Someone burst into tears – not a quiet sobbing but full-on bawling, complete with snot and shuddering gasps for breath.
Then a deep, familiar voice boomed, cutting through all the drama. “That’s too much, too much,” someone said, in crisp, Taiwanese-accented Mandarin.
It was the morning of a public holiday – Hari Raya Haji, to be exact – but inside one cavernous room in Mediacorp, the contestants of Star Search 2019 were far from taking a break. Since the announcement of the 24 actor wannabes, they had been working hard with their respective mentors, veteran actors Huang Biren, Chen Hanwei and Christopher Lee.
The voice was Lee’s and he was holding court in his acting class. “Walk in again,” he instructed one of the hopefuls before he’d even reached the table where Lee was seated at. The day had begun at 10am and from the looks of it, it was going to be a long and emotionally charged one.
The students were preparing for their respective roles in WeMovie, a six-episode mini-series by directors Jun Chong and Alvin Lee, which will showcase their acting abilities – and determine their fate – come the semi-finals in October.
“I want them to not just act but to feel the emotions of the characters that they’re portraying. Only when you convey the emotions can you reach and move the audience,” the 48-year-old leading man explained, when CNA Lifestyle caught him for a chat during the only break he had for the day.
‘THEY HAVE TO CRY’
It was the second class Lee had held for his eight proteges. According to his personal assistant, the previous day’s class had ended past 11pm. But the teary eyes, sniffles and seriousness in the room weren’t because of the long hours so much as the script.
“It is an emotionally heavy story to begin with,” said Lee, when asked why it was necessary for the contestants to cry. “Also, as humans, crying, along with laughing, is our basic way of expressing ourselves. A good actor is not one who can cry on cue but also express the qualities of the character he plays. The students have to cry as the story is very sad. If you can’t cry, I would be worried as you can’t achieve the very basic in acting.”
But don’t assume that Lee is impressed if you can turn on the waterworks at will. “People think that being able to cry is good acting. But I’ve been telling the students that weeping is Acting 101; it doesn’t mean you’ve nailed acting if you can cry on cue,” he said.
The award-winning actor had made the effort to understand the difficulties the students face – even drawing on his own experience as a Star Search contestant back in 1995. “Like these students, I also had one to two months of acting lessons before the competition,” he recalled. “But after the competition, it was up to me to learn further and hone my craft.”
For now, his job was to elevate his students’ acting abilities on par with each other. “These eight students’ standards are different. You need to dissect the skills you’re imparting to them one-on-one to suit each student’s level.
"Language is another factor. Your grasp of the language will determine how well you interpret the emotions. Some can act but their grasp of the language may not be strong; others are strong linguistically but may lack the emotional depth, so that’s where the difficulty lies. It will be challenging but I hope they can meet that high point.”
THE JOY AND SORROW OF ACTING
High expectations indeed. For 24-year-old teacher Chang Hio Cheng, who hails from Macau, the morning’s session had been “emotionally draining”. “It wasn’t really the experience I’d expected because my mentor’s expectations are really, really high,” she said, her eyes still red from all the sobbing.
“I didn’t expect I’d cry this much. I really used up my emotions and tried my best to deliver my true feelings. I should say I think I did better than what I expected.”
Despite the pressure, Chang is grateful to have Lee as her mentor. “He has been teaching us a lot about how to get into the scene and how to express our true self. And he’s shared a lot of his experience with us and it’s really precious,” she said.
For Singaporean student Herman Keh, it was a therapeutic experience. “I’m not really sensitive to a lot of things. This is a learning point for me to be more sensitive to the people around me. I feel that the session just now really hit me. I felt something and I feel that it’s the start of knowing myself and finding myself. It was a very good session for me.”
As someone with no background in acting, Keh was buoyed by his mentor’s belief in him. “I’ve just started acting, so I know nothing. But (Lee) believes in me more than I believe in myself and pushes me through to my potential. Whatever you never thought you could do, you end up doing it because of his help.”
Lee was glad that his efforts had been appreciated. “Before starting the classes, I’d devised a set of skills to impart but I wasn’t sure if they were relevant or useful to the students. But after these few sessions with the contestants, I am relieved because I can see that they have absorbed them.”
The veteran actor added that the contestants shouldn’t see Star Search as the end all and be all of their acting journey. “Success comes at different times for different people. For the actor who shoots to fame overnight, he will drop off the radar soon enough if he doesn’t continue to work on his craft,” he said.
“Some may need to put in 10, 20 years before they find the role that catapults them to fame. So the actor who finally catches his break after decades earned it by working hard and preparing himself all this while. It comes down to hard work at the end of the day.”
Catch WeMovie on Channel 8 and Toggle on Oct 6 and 13, 8pm to 10pm on both days.